Honoring those who gave ultimate sacrifice
Although no longer in the military, Sgt. Maj. Ernie L. O’Neal patrolled the perimeter of his daughter’s house at night because that’s what a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps does on instinct.
It didn’t matter that he was 92 and barely able to walk. O’Neal found a way to disarm the makeshift security system his daughter installed above his bedroom door and sneak out for duty.
The memory brings Pat Hawkins to tears, but it also makes her smile.
Her father was a career Marine, having served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The only thing he loved more than the military was his family, but even then, Pat said, being a Marine and a father were essentially the same thing.
“What he felt for his men was like what he felt for his children,” she added.
On Monday, Pat was joined by her husband, Charlie Hawkins — a three-year veteran of the Marines who served in Vietnam — for the annual Memorial Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado.
The Hawkinses moved to Grand Junction one week ago from Alabama and don’t even have their belongings yet, but that didn’t stop the couple from attending Monday’s ceremony to honor those who have died serving this country.
O’Neal never shared specifics about war, but he shared “the funny” stories about military life, Pat said. O’Neal didn’t die in combat, but he spent 30 years knowing the risk just to preserve American freedoms.
“He was John Wayne,” Pat said of her father’s personality and physique. “He was big and patriotic.”
O’Neal, who stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 230 pounds at his peak, died five years ago. His ashes were scattered in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Her father never raised his voice at home. He didn’t have too, she added.
A compassionate man, he got involved in helping a South Korean orphanage in the early 1950s, Pat said.
When it came time to lead his Marines, however, O’ Neal did so with qualities befitting the Golden Gloves heavyweight champion that he was.
“He was an Irish boxer,” Charlie Hawkins said, emphasizing the word “Irish.”
During Monday’s service, numerous elected state and local officials delivered speeches about freedom and how this nation must always honor those who sacrificed their lives for our way of life.
The national anthem was sung. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited under sunny skies and a soft breeze that gave every American flag the chance to stretch out and show off its stars and stripes.
During his final remarks, state Rep. Jared Wright, R-Fruita, challenged the younger generation to take care of veterans and the families of deceased veterans, to live the American dream veterans died to preserve, and to always remember Memorial Day.